Radio Renegades : The Bad Boys of Ham Airwaves Bicker, Berate Each Other and Bend FCC Rules
It was nearly midnight, and the argument between two ham radio hobbyists, Richard and Darin, was heating up faster than a transceiver with a short circuit.
“Wait till I see you,” yelled Darin, of Watts, accusing Richard, of Orange, of interfering with his radio transmissions. “You’re gonna eat your words. . . . You’re gonna get a taste of South-Central in your face. I swear to God--you haven’t the slightest idea what you’re dealing with here. You read about it in the news.”
“Just look over your shoulder,” shot back Richard, who contended that Darin was running interference of his own. “Your homeboys are statistics every night in the news. . . . Why don’t you go stand on the corner and they’ll take care of you, part of their population control? They’ll be coming around the corner with their automatics.”
Finally, both men’s microphones went silent, giving another operator the last word.
“This is what amateur radio is all about!” the anonymous voice laughingly told shortwave listeners from Goleta to Mexico.
Another day of broadcasting was coming to an end for the Mt. Wilson Repeater Assn., home to the Hells Angels of hams.
While most of the 500,000 amateur radio hobbyists in the United States are viewed as genteel, eccentric electronics tinkerers, those using the ham radio relay station atop a Malibu ridge have become the bad boys of the airwaves.
Other hams are preoccupied with antennae and transmitter tubes as they tap out Morse code messages to fellow hobbyists worldwide. Unfailingly, they are polite and proper as they answer inquiries about signal strength and reception.
Things are different at the Mt. Wilson Repeater Assn.'s frequency, which is heard at 147.435 megahertz on shortwave radios and scanners in Southern California.
A ham who made the mistake the other day of calling on the channel to ask if his signal was clear was curtly told: “It’s fine, stupid. Now shut up and get the hell out of here.”
Insults are routinely tossed at whites, blacks, Latinos, Poles and other groups. Comments about women’s anatomy and about other radio operators’ masculinity are common. Heated debates on abortion, police brutality and Supreme Court confirmation hearings have a fervor missing on commercial talk-radio stations.
During one five-minute period last month, various hams heard themselves labeled on the Mt. Wilson repeater as “a lying scumbag,” “pothead” and “drunken fool.” And those are the milder descriptions.
Hams who use the other 320 mountaintop repeaters in Southern California to amplify their low-powered, 2-meter walkie-talkies and transceivers grumble that such talk is outrageous.
But users of the “4-3-5 repeater,” as they call Mt. Wilson, claim it’s all good, clean fun.
“I don’t get offended,” says Darin Jones, a Watts school custodian who found himself involved in the other night’s debate over radio interference, called “jamming” by hams.
“They sometimes tell me on the radio that I stole my equipment or bought it with food stamps. But ham radio is a hobby, and hobbies are supposed to be fun. There’s a switch on my radio--if I get offended, I’ll turn it off.”
Richard Clark, the machine operator from Orange who shared in the debate, says he agrees.
“It’s all in the name of fun,” Clark says. “We can be obnoxious. But you can’t believe everything you hear on the radio. It can be deceptive. . . . It’s just letting our hair down.”
The debate between Clark and Jones went no further than the airwaves. But other radio disputes have landed Mt. Wilson repeater users in court and in jail:
* In 1981, an operator using the channel had his equipment confiscated, his license revoked and a $500 fine levied after Federal Communications Commission investigators discovered him jamming the Mt. Wilson repeater frequency. The ham, who was arrested after allegedly threatening to kill two local FCC engineers.
* Ham Richard A. Burton, a Harbor City electronics engineer, was sentenced to federal prison in 1982 after being cited for using obscene language and jamming other operators’ signals on the channel. The FCC also suspended his ham license.
“I served 6 months, 20 days and 8 hours at Lompoc,” Burton recalls. “I guess they wanted to use me as an example. But if I did everything they said I did, I’d have had to be on the air 48 hours a day.”
Burton is on one year’s probation from a second conviction last year for operating without a license. He says he plans to apply for a new license so he can return to the air when probation ends this week. Ironically, he serves as editor of the Mt. Wilson Repeater Assn. newsletter.
* The FCC tried without success in 1983 to yank David Hildebrand’s license for allegedly using obscene language over the Mt. Wilson association’s frequency. “I challenged them that they couldn’t prove what was obscene, and they couldn’t,” says Hildebrand, a technical writer who lives in Hollywood.
Fellow Mt. Wilson repeater users say Hildebrand’s case made the test of “community standards” a requirement for ham radio obscenity enforcement in the United States--a contention the FCC does not deny.
“Basically, what they said was the community standards are so low on 4-3-5 that there are no standards,” laughs Steve Morris of Mar Vista, who talks regularly on the Mt. Wilson channel.
* More recently, an on-the-air argument between Richard Yarigian of Rancho Palos Verdes and Harold Cronin of Torrance sparked an alleged altercation at a Pacific Coast Highway hamburger stand. According to court documents, one called the other “a wimp and a loser” and was grabbed and threatened in return.
The dispute was settled in July in Torrance Superior Court, where twin restraining orders were issued to keep the two apart.
“You know what? This is a case for the ‘People’s Court.’ I think I’m going to refer this to Judge Wapner and you people will all become famous,” Commissioner Abraham Gorenfeld sighed during the hearing. “Maybe William Buckley will put you on his show.”
In typical Mt. Wilson style, other hams obtained an audiotape of the court proceeding and played it repeatedly on the radio. Each time it aired, the side comments became more snide.
Such on-the-air high jinks abound. In August, the maverick hams broadcast a phony arrest report about a regular user of the repeater; when he left town on vacation, they announced he’d been hauled off to jail.
Last year, anonymous pranksters forged a license-change application that prompted the FCC to issue an unexpected--and unwanted--set of new call letters to one of the Mt. Wilson channel’s frequent users.
Users of the repeater sometimes play music over the station, which is prohibited by FCC rules. They also sometimes rebroadcast signals from other amateur repeater stations and airport control towers, which also is illegal.
The shenanigans make mainstream hams fume.
“It’s hard to find words to describe them,” says Fried Heyn of Costa Mesa. He is Southern California-Arizona director of the national American Radio Relay League.
Says Bill Pasternak, a Canyon Country ham who operates a national news service called Amateur Radio Newsline: “I’m a gentleman. I won’t use the words that describe what I think about them. Why hasn’t the FCC taken action to remove it and its people?”
But enforcement isn’t as easy as it sounds, says Dan Emrick, chief of investigations and inspections for the FCC in Washington. Illegal transmissions are hard to track down. And the “community standards” test makes obscenity even harder to prove.
“It may be perfectly all right in New York City to make dirty references to your lineage,” Emrick says. “But if you did it in the Bible Belt, you’d be run out of town on a rail. What goes in Southern California might not be acceptable in North Carolina.”
New regulations last month boosted fines for FCC violations to $250,000 per incident, something “I hope will have a chilling effect” on violators, Emrick says.
Officials say the Mt. Wilson repeater, atop Saddle Peak in Malibu, has been a freewheeling operation since it went on the air in about 1961. It was initially designed by an engineer at Los Angeles radio station KPFK-FM, which is known for its commitment to free speech.
The repeater equipment is owned by Roy Tucker, a La Mirada college professor who also pays $100 a month in rent for broadcast tower space atop the mountain. Tucker has been a ham for 40 years.
The channel often sounds “like a bunch of drunken sailors at a waterfront bar,” Tucker acknowledges. “It’s not a church. If you stick your nose in there thinking you’re going to get a church service, you’re wrong.”
But most conversations on the Mt. Wilson association’s station are civilized, contends Arny Gamson, a North Hollywood oil company manager and a ham for 35 years. It’s the controversial talk that lures thousands of listeners daily, he says.
“I’m not naive. I know some say it’s horrible, and it is horrible for them. But it’s great listening,” he says. Still, Gamson adds: “I turn off the radio when I hear racial slurs.”
Karl Pagel, an Anaheim amateur operator who helps coordinate repeater frequency usage in the Los Angeles area, says that “95% of the hams in Southern California look down on that repeater as the black sheep of the community. But people listen in. Even I get on there and talk occasionally.”
Renegades or not, those using the repeater say they draw the line at one thing: jamming. Hams such as Clarke Harris of Torrance have installed sensitive radio directional finders atop their cars that can be used to track down those interfering with conversation. Abusers are reported to the FCC.
And while acrimony often reigns on the outlaw channel, love occasionally blooms.
Kathy Gallant of Santa Monica and Craig Harrison of Canoga Park met while talking on the channel last year and say they plan to marry.
Their wedding, they promise, will be broadcast live on the Mt. Wilson repeater.